By Rory Linnane
May 6, 2012
Mushir Hassan has been living in Brookfield for 12 years, with two daughters in Elm brook schools and two that aren't yet of school age. He has been active in the community as a volunteer and an internal medicine physician. But recently what has defined his presence in the community is his religion, Islam, and his hope to have a new mosque in his city.
Hassan is the secretary on the board of directors for the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, which is seeking to build the mosque at 16650 and 16730 W. Pheasant Dr., a short distance northeast of the intersection of Calhoun Road and North Avenue. He is also the project representative to the City of Brookfield.
As fears have surfaced from neighbors about religious extremism and ties to terrorism with the proposal, Hassan has taken on the role of an ambassador, meeting with communities of faith around Brookfield to explain basic concepts of Islam and field questions about the mosque's intentions.
Patch caught up with him after he spoke Sunday at Brookfield Congregational United Church of Christ.
Q: The proposed mosque has brought out a lot of anti-Islam sentiment. Were you surprised to hear that coming from the community? Had you experienced that before in Brookfield?
A: I wouldn’t say surprised; I’m just a little disappointed, because it’s just not in keeping with the reception that I’ve gotten overall, both myself and my family. I’ve had more than a few patients who’ve come up to me during this process to say, "Doc, we’re behind you on this, because this is a fundamental religious liberty issue. You should have a right to worship just like I have a right to worship."
I’ve gotten the occasional letter from people pointing out some things that are derogatory and uninformed. But once they’re able to have a communication with us, and once they’re able to appreciate that 85 percent of how we think we should run our daily lives is like everybody else in Brookfield, people have a reassurance that this is something we all share more in common.
If people want to focus on the differences, then we’re going to have difficulties trying to get along. But I’m not really about focusing on differences; I think we should focus on what brings us together and then we can make our community a better place.
Q: Do you have a sense of what this experience has been like for other Muslims in the community?
A: I think a number of Muslim folks have been somewhat surprised to see some of the more harsh statements that have been made, because it’s just not in keeping from what they’re used to from their neighbors. I’ve had a number of folks come up to me talking about how their children went to high school with Muslim children, and they were back and forth with birthday parties and things. They had personal relationships, so they just don’t understand where people are afraid.
Q: What do you think it is that people fear?
A: Obviously one of the things we’ve had to deal with is that there’s been a frequent association of Islam with violence. And so with that, we’ve had a little bit more difficulty in addressing people who would be inherently suspicious from the get-go, that we have to try and communicate with and show that what we’re about and what these extremist radicals are about are different things, and we condemn what they’re doing.
Because there’s been such a strong persistent association of Islam with violence, we have to counter that to say no, this is not something we agree with. It’s something that we stand resolutely against, not just for our own neighbors, but even for our own kids, so our kids understand that this is not something we do. We value human life, and we value respect for other humans.
Q: One of the concerns people frequently bring up is that Muslims want to impose sharia law. Can you explain the role that sharia plays in your life?
A: I think first and foremost, for Muslims living in America, we respect the laws of the land that are here. Sharia is the derivation of Islamic law based on previous precedents that exist to show the way in which Muslims should behave in their personal life.
One of the charges that has been coming up is that this mosque is a Trojan horse for us to impose sharia law on Brookfield. And I think that’s an extremely incorrect statement because for us as Muslims, what sharia means to us is how we run our lives personally, morally for ourselves at home.
This Islamic Society’s been in Milwaukee for thirty years. We’ve not done anything that would impose on others’ rights. That’s the way I see this proceeding forward. I think the concern that this is somehow going to be something Muslims wish to apply to others and supersede the constitution is straight fear-mongering.
Q: Some people have also made allegations that the mosque could receive funding from organizations tied to extremists and terrorism. Can you explain where the funding will come from?
A: People are concerned the funding is coming from outside sources where there may be some foreign influence that could be at play. This project is entirely funded by local Muslim families in Brookfield and the Milwaukee area. The Islamic Society of Milwaukee does fundraising from its local communities to raise resources that it needs to carry out its mission.
We have worked very hard to try and communicate to our donor base of these 100 Muslim families in the Brookfield area to make sure they are engaged in the project and willing to cough up some money to help support the project. We have good relations with the Muslim community throughout Milwaukee that would be willing to support the project as well, because the ability to build a mosque is considered a very noble cause. It’s no different from any other religious house of worship in Brookfield, in that the money is coming from local donors from the local congregation.
Treatment of women
Q: Some people have also argued that Islam is oppressive to women. Will women be treated differently than men in the mosque?
A: That is usually an indicator of how conservative a mosque is—where is the women’s section? I think that we would definitely come under more moderate. We can illustrate that best by saying we’ve had healthy discussions in a transparent fashion with Muslim men and women being able to communicate what they feel is important for the building as part of our planning meetings with the architect.
One thing I will not tolerate is separate but not equal. We have to make sure we’re careful about doing things as well for our women as we do our men. In the mosque there will be a balcony with a glass wall where the women will pray. The idea there is to make sure you have an environment that is respectful of modesty, yet still welcoming. That’s the balance that we want to strike.
Q: In the course of your outreach, do you feel you've changed any minds?
A: We hope there’s potential for people to have changed minds on this, so their comfort level is able to increase. I don’t think it happens with one conversation; I think it happens with continued dialogue and continued engagement. Once we’re able to do that I think we can if not necessarily change minds, at least make people more comfortable with the fact that you’ve got this community that lives in this community, that’s been in this community for over 50 years.
My hope is not to get everybody to completely be backing the project, or even donating to the project; my hope is just to make people understand that some of the noise they’re hearing is just simply incorrect, and it’s fear-mongering, and this is what we stand for.
Q: What are you looking forward to about the prospect of a new mosque for this community?
A: I’m looking forward, first and foremost, for the ability to have some sense of community for us. I’m also looking forward to the prospect of education. People keep asking, will we be welcome, can we visit? We’re becoming a more diverse city, and being able to learn about and appreciate that diversity I think is going to be important. We should recognize that this process has shown us that there is learning that we can do in terms of where we connect.
Seeing what we’ve seen these last two to six months, I think what it’s shown is that there is some degree of thirst for dialogue that exists in our community here. Some of it may be uncomfortable, and that’s OK. If I’m Muslim, and you’re Christian, we’re going to have some disagreement. But if we’re able to as a community focus on the 85 percent we agree on, we can make our community that much better.
We all agree that there’s hungry people in Milwaukee that need to be fed. If we can work together and do that, that’s a good thing. There are people in Milwaukee that need health care through free clinics; let’s work together to do that. Previously I was a teen tutor for one of the local football teams. If we ever do something like that here at this building, for Muslim kids but open it up to whoever wants to come, I think that would be a wonderful way of showing this is who we are: we value education.
The smarter we all are, the better we are off as a community.